Eddie and Alex's father, Jan Van Halen, encouraged his sons' love of music and was an accomplished sax and clarinet musician in his own right. He joined the brothers on clarinet for "Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)" on the Diver Down album.
The band has had a string of vocalists, starting with David Lee Roth (1974-1985), Sammy Hagar (1985-1996) and culminating with Gary Cherone (of Extreme) (1996-1999). Originally named Mammoth, they changed their name to Van Halen after they found out that the name was taken. They also considered Rat Salade after the Black Sabbath song; Van Halen was suggested by original lead singer David Lee Roth.
Gene Simmons of Kiss caught the band's show in Los Angeles, California in 1976, and financed a demo tape, but Kiss' management passed on signing the band, and the tape did not lead to a record contract because of the band's ignorance. The band was eventually signed by a Warner Brothers executive, Mo Ostin, and their first producer Ted Templeman after a show at the famed Starwood Club in Los Angeles.
Their debut, self-titled album was released in 1978 and featured a new soloing technique called tapping: a technique utilizing both left and right hands on the guitar neck. Leading up to the release of the album, Eddie would play his solos with his back to the audience during club dates, to hide his technique until the album came out.
Van Halen also contributed to the modern concert technical contract rider. Though they had existed before, contract riders had not really been used for this purpose. Van Halen was the first major band with a full stage show to appear in some smaller cities. Few of the venues in these markets had dealt with a show of that magnitude, and were not equipped to handle Van Halen's massive stage and light show, resulting in damage to the band's equipment and the venue. The now infamous contract rider specified that a bowl of M&M candies, with all of the brown ones removed, was to be available in the band's dressing room. This requirement was listed with the technical portion of the contract, which spelled out how big the stage was, how much it weighed, the power requirements, and the other technical specifications that had to be met for the show to happen safely. According to David Lee Roth, the purpose of the M&M's was to check up on venue management. If there were brown M&M's in the dressing room, then every line of the contract had to be doublechecked, to ensure safety. Shows were cancelled because of the venue's inability to handle the band's stage or equipment.
Van Halen's most successful album sales-wise, was Roth's departing album, 1984, released at the end of December, 1983. This album ushered keyboards into hard rock, something unheard of at the time. The album's lead single, "Jump" featured keyboards prominently, and became the band's first #1 single. After the subsequent tour, Roth was either dismissed or walked out on the band, according to different reports. Soon after, singer/guitarist/song-writer Sammy Hagar was recruited to join the band. They knew each other from a previous tour with Hagar's former band Montrose.
Van Halen's period with Sammy Hagar was a marked by two trends, an upward trend in the charts, and one of growing fan resentment regarding the departure of Roth. Hagar's lyrics were, on the whole, more serious and lovey-dovey, something die-hard, traditional Van Halen fans missed when comparing to Roth's early 80s party, 'hair' influences, once described as a mix of religion and hockey.
The For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album featured the song "Right Now". The video was nominated for many awards, and the song was the first Van Halen song to be used in a commercial. "Right Now" was used (grudgingly) to promote the ill-fated Crystal Pepsi (1990). The band's remake of The Kinks "You Really Got Me" from "Van Halen" was later used in a Nissan commercial.
A rumored reunion with David Lee Roth proved to be doomed from the start. That rumor contributed to Hagar leaving the band (or being forced to leave, the story varies). David Lee Roth entered the studio with the Van Halen brothers, Micheal Anthony, and the band's first producer, Ted Templeman. Two songs from those sessions were added to the band's Greatest Hits album. Around that time, the four original members of the band took the stage at the MTV Video Music Awards to present an award. Backstage, personalities and old arguments began to rub against each other, and the relationship again ended soon afterward.
Gary Cherone was then recruited from the defunct Boston based band Extreme to sing for Van Halen, resulting in an experimental album, Van Halen 3. Sales were lackluster in comparison to previous albums (although VH3 did go gold in the U.S.). Cherone split amicably with the band after the VH3 tour.
Van Halen has not released an album since 1998, lacking a lead singer. Eddie Van Halen had hip replacement surgery and went through cancer treatment in 2001. He has since recovered 100%. David Lee Roth has recently brought court action against Van Halen, their management, and record company in 2003, claiming he was left out of 1996 royalty renegotiations. Sammy Hagar created his own line of tequila, and owns a bar in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
In the summer of 2002, David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar teamed up for the "Heavyweights of Rock," or 'Sans-Halen' Tour. Bassist Michael Anthony joined both Hagar and Roth onstage. Roth and Hagar and Cherone continue to record and tour, separately (for now).